While both countries compete for influence over the Kazakh establishment, they are on the same page when it comes to opposing a colour revolution in Astana.
Kazakhstan is Central Asia’s richest country with vast gas and oil reserves, but it also lies in a strategic region between Russia and China. All of this makes it a crucial state for both Beijing and Moscow.
While Russia and China have aligned on a number of issues against the West's increasing political pressure, they also have reservations about the other’s exerting outsized influence over countries like Kazakhstan.
Both countries agree on several things including the prevention of another colour revolution in Central Asia’s most important state. Colour revolutions in Ukraine and Georgia, which are former Soviet republics just like Kazakhstan, ousted pro-Russian leaders forming pro-Western governments.
As a result, Russia is not interested in more regime change in the former Soviet territories.
"The measures taken by the CSTO (Collective Security Treaty Organization) made it clear that we would not let anyone destabilise the situation at our home and implement so-called colour revolution scenarios," Russian President Vladimir Putin said, reacting to the Kazakh unrest.
Russia has sent its military forces under the CSTO, a Moscow-led security alliance, which is currently under Armenian command, to Kazakhstan to help Tokayev suppress the rebellion. Tokayev invited Russian forces to help stabilise the political situation.
China, which was shaken by the pro-democracy Tiananmen Square protests decades ago and has been recently wary of Hong Kong’s pro-democratic demands, is also against similar revolutions.
“At a key moment you took resolutely effective measures, quickly restoring calm. China opposes any foreign forces to plot 'colour revolution' in Kazakhstan,” Xi Jinping told the Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, according to Chinese state media.
In his latest remarks, Tokayev also suggested all rebel forces were coordinated by a single centre, which has no official name, accusing foreign powers with Western credentials.
"Armed militants who were waiting in the wings joined the protests. The main goal was obvious: the undermining of the constitutional order, the destruction of government institutions and the seizure of power. It was an attempted coup d'etat," Tokayev said.
Both Chinese and Russian leaders alongside Tokayev agreed that the rebellion was organised externally, ambiguously referring to the Western alliance.
“It is because destructive internal and external forces took advantage of the situation,” said Putin, referring to the popular anger regarding a 100 percent liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) price hike made by the Kazakh government.
Both states also carefully watch over any Turkic nationalist movement because China and Russia have significant Turkic populations in Central Asia, including Kazakhstan.
Kazakhstan is crucial for Russia due to both historical and political reasons.
The first Central Asia rebellion against the Russian Empire began in present-day Kazakhstan under the Russian occupation in 1916. The rebellion would later inspire the Basmachi movement, which sought to establish an independent Muslim Turkic polity across Central Asia in the 1920s. Both rebellions failed as the Soviet Union continued to rule much of the region.
Beyond history, the Central Asian state is also important for Russia due to its large Russian population which is mostly concentrated in northern Kazakhstan. Under the former President Nursultan Nazarbayev, the Kazakh leadership pursued a nationalist policy to increase Kazakh population.
Nazarbayev’s policy appeared to succeed as the Kazakh population topped 68 percent in 2020 as opposed to the Russian population which was around 19 percent. While the Russian population is still significant in Kazakhstan, it’s incomparable with the demographics under the former Soviet Union.
In 1970, with the Soviet's constant policy of population exchanges between different republics, Kazakhs ceased to be a majority in Kazakhstan. While the Russian population stood at 43 percent, the Kazakhs were only 32 percent five decades ago in Kazakhstan.
While Nazarbayev and Tokayev have continued to align with the Russian foreign policy externally, Moscow under Putin has been wary of the rise of the Kazakh nationalism. Some Russian analysts also appear to believe that some kind of Kazakh nationalism could be behind the violent protests.
“If the situation in Kazakhstan changes and radical nationalists come to power, the Russian policy will change too,” warned Andrey Kortunov, director-general of the Russian International Affairs Council, a Moscow-based think-tank.
“There will be problems, and they could be solved in different ways,” Kortunov said, referring to the Kazakh unrest without clarifying the Kremlin’s conflict resolution methods.
China also has a lot of stakes in Kazakhstan. But it behaves starkly differently from Russia, using soft power instruments to exert its influence over Kazakhstan.
First of all, Kazakhstan is located on the route of China’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative. As a result, any instability in Kazakhstan will increase concerns in Beijing in terms of the route’s security across Central Asia.
Second, China has powerful bitcoin mining operations in Kazakhstan. There are some claims that China’s large bitcoin operations have created a lot of stress on the supply of the Kazakh electricity, leading to blackouts and infuriating the local population for days prior to the protests. With the LPG price hike, that electricity-rooted anger turned into large protests, according to experts.
Third, China does not want to face any kind of ethnic assertiveness across its large territories, fearing that the Kazakh unrest might encourage some within China’s restive Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region to rebel.
“Will terrorist organizations such as the East Turkestan Islamic Movement be encouraged by the Kazakh riots? The situation is indeed unpredictable,” said Pan Guang, the director of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization Studies Center at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences, referring to an Uyghur group in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region.